Your Essential Guide to Winter Car Care in Houston

During the hot and humid summers in Houston, most people are thinking on thing: How could it possibly become cold and icy in such a climate? Summers in Houston often stay in the 90s and cross into the 100s frequently, and the humidity is nearly inescapable. Being situated on a bayou, Houstonians expect to melt in the summertime, but just because the heat seems to last forever in the summer doesn’t mean it never gets cold in the wintertime.

In fact, it’s because of Houston’s position on a bayou that brings in both cold and severe winter weather. While Houstonians rarely have to shovel snow off their driveways, ice storms occur frequently, making road conditions all over the city hazardous. Temperatures often drop below freezing, and with the wind chill, it can feel even colder. As the city of Houston’s website reminds residents, it’s important to protect the four P’s in freezing temperatures: pipes, people, pets and plants.

Interestingly, fires are more common in Houston during the winter because of the freezing temperatures. Faulty home heating systems often malfunction in the wintertime because of freezing temperatures, causing fires to start. That’s why it’s so important to get your heating system checked and test your smoke and carbon monoxide detectors to ensure that they work.

As the holiday season continues to supply us with plenty of distractions, there’s one thing that all Houstonians should be thinking about, and that’s winterizing their cars. Weather of late can be volatile: It’s warm one week and then the bottom drops out. By getting your winter car car done ahead of time, you’ll be head to tackle the roads no matter how icy it gets.

Not sure where to start? Here are our best winter car care tips and how to protect yourself and your vehicle while driving in the wintertime.

Winter car care

If you live just about anywhere in Houston, you’re relying on your car to get you around. Sure, you can take buses and the Metrorail (and you should if you can, public transportation is better for the environment), but more likely, you’re going to be relying on your vehicle this winter to get you and your family from place to place. This means carpools to school, commutes to work and even swinging by your favorite Chinese restaurant at night to pick up dinner. With all that driving, you need to be certain that your car can handle the road and get you safely from place to place.

For those who are not car savvy — don’t be ashamed, not everyone can fix a car — the best thing to do is take your car to a mechanic for a tune-up. A good mechanic will go over your vehicle and check your fluids, such as antifreeze and brake fluids, and top you off if needed. He or she will also test your brakes and your exhaust system, among other things. If you don’t have the knowhow or the time to take a good look at your car, your best best is to take it to a mechanic as part of your winter car care.

But if you’re afraid of a little grease and you have the time for winter car care, then you can pop your own hood and start doing the work yourself. Here’s what you need to do to get your car in winter shape.

First, you need to check the fluids in your car. That includes, antifreeze, oil and washer fluids. If any of these fluids are low, they should be refilled. If you notice that their levels seem to be dropping too quickly in comparison to how much you use your car, then you might have a leak. See a mechanic if you think so.

Next, go over your ignition and brake systems to check that everything is working properly. Your brakes will be essential during an ice storm — not that they aren’t essential at any other time  — but they could mean the difference between avoiding a collision and a higher insurance premium. You also don’t want to climb into your car during an ice storm only to find out that it won’t start. These systems go hand in hand, so make sure they work.

Your heating and exhaust systems should also be monitored at this time. Since heat was the last thing you wanted in the summer, you probably haven’t turned on your heater in your car in a while. Check it now before you really need to use it. Your exhaust system will be responsible for moving carbon monoxide out of your vehicle, and since carbon monoxide is odorless, you won’t know you have a problem until it’s too late.

One part of winter car care that many people overlook is the car’s lights and flashers. If you have a light out or your flashers aren’t working, you can cause an accident while trying to make an easy turn at a stop sign. Check all of your lights to make sure they’re working properly and clean your lights around your car so dirt and grime don’t dull the shine.

If your tires aren’t new, consider getting snow tires put on your car when the temperature drops to 45 degrees F and below. These are heavy-duty tires designed to deal with icy surfaces and snow, allowing them to stop quickly and find traction on slick surfaces.

When it comes to winter car care, snow tires:

  • Provide as much as 25-50% more traction over all-season tires. If you need to stop quickly, snow tires will be able to find more of a grip than regular tires.
  • Have thousands of extra traction edges, which gives an added grip If your car is parked on an icy patch, your snow tires will usually be able to find traction and get you out.
  • Use softer rubber. This allows your tires to stay more pliable when the temperature drops and your tires make contact with the concrete.

You can usually find these at any auto parts store and put them on yourself, or you can head to just about any auto body shop and have them replace your tires. Call ahead to make sure they have snow tires. Some people keep one set of snow tires and put them on and take them off every year. That may not be for you, but it is an option.

Finally, one of the most important things you can do with winter car care is keep your gas tank filled at least halfway. Like any other liquid, gasoline can freeze, which is going to cause some serious trouble if you try to start your car with a frozen gasoline inside. The more liquid that’s in your gas tank, the less likely that it will freeze, so keep the tank at least half full to prevent potential freezes.

Tips for driving in winter in Houston

While snowstorms will pass right over Houston — the last snowstorm in 2009 dropped just an inch of snow on the ground — ice storms are another matter and somewhat more common in the area. On days when the weather is cold but still above freezing, rain may fall during the day, but when the temperature drops at night, that fallen rain turns to ice on our roads, and the rain that was falling turns to sleet.

Ice storms have been known to shut down Houston roads, and for good reason: No one should be driving during an ice storm unless it’s an emergency. You put your own life and vehicle at risk when you drive through an ice storm, not to mention that of your passengers. If an ice storm threatens Houston, no amount of winter car care will protect your vehicle or yourself. The best thing to do is call off work and stay off the roads until you can be sure your roads are safe.

But what about those in-between moments? You know it’s rainy, and the rain will probably freeze. But you’re at work now, and you need to get home. If you absolutely must drive in icy conditions, here are your winter car care tips that will help get you and your vehicle home safe.

Check your car before taking off

Icy conditions can sometimes creep up without warning, so if you haven’t had time to do your winter car care yet, do a quick check of things before you leave your place of work, including:

  • Flash your lights. Even if it’s sunny now, it may get dark by the time you get home, especially if there’s a lot of traffic on the road. Turn your lights on manually and flip your turn signals.
  • Pump your brakes. Hopefully your brakes should already be in good condition, but test them out before hitting the road just to be sure.
  • Adjust all mirrors and clear windows. If it’s raining, turn on your wipers and clear off your windshield and back windshield as much as possible. You need as much visibility as possible. If any ice has already become frozen, use a scraper to get it off. As you drive, the warmth from your car should melt the ice, but that can take some time, so it’s best to get the ice off before you take off.

If anything feels off as you go through your winter car care, ask for a ride or call your spouse for a pick-up. Your safety is more important, so don’t place yourself or other drivers in unnecessary danger.

Drive slowly and defensively

There is absolutely no need to drive fast when the weather is cold and icy. You may want to get home quickly. You may have had a rough day and want nothing more than to sit and watch reruns of your favorite TV show, but driving too fast puts yourself and others at risk. When it comes to winter car care, you need to drive slowly in icy conditions and ensure that other people will make it home to their loved ones as well.

Before you take off, punch your destination into your preferred GPS app and see which route will be best for you. Google Maps and other apps usually update to include road closures, and they will reroute you. It may be a longer route, but it’s better than getting stuck in traffic or having to turn around when the highways close.

Once you get going, stay a little below the speed limit and pay attention to the flow of traffic. Keep your radio on low or tuned to a news station with frequent updates about traffic. When you’re behind another vehicle, give it plenty of space and avoid tailgating. If others are tailgating you as you drive a little slower than usual, let them. It’s not worth driving fast if it could cost you a life — yours or someone else’s.

You want to avoid any and all distractions, so do not reach for your phone. Once the GPS is set, just let it go. You can answer calls and text messages later.

Start braking sooner

Part of our winter car care involves testing your brakes before you leave the parking lot, so you should feel confident in your brakes.

As you’re driving, start braking sooner as you approach a stop light or sign. You may find out too late that there’s ice near the stop sign, and you could end up skidding right through and hitting another car. Avoid slamming on your brakes. That will almost ashuredly send you right through the intersection. If you do slow down earlier and find that you still can’t stop, your speed will at least be down, so if you do hit another car, you will probably cause less damage.

When it comes to winter car care, the best thing you can do is stay off the roads. Tuck yourself in for the day, make a cup of hot chocolate and stay at home until weather conditions have improved.

Tell us: What are your winter car care tips that get you ready for winter driving? Share with us in the comments!

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